Bottled Up: Sonoma, D.C.’s Pioneering Wine Bar, Has Uneven Legs
“Try the barbera,” the bartender huffs, not-so-delicate-ly setting the stemmed glass on the counter in front of me with a clang.
This was perhaps the most brief, and definitely the most brusque, conversation about wine that I’d ever had in a supposed wine bar.
I had merely asked for a recommendation of a nice big red to pair with my steak, a nicely charred wood-grilled ribeye that came pink in the center but not nearly as bloody as I generally like, drizzled with blueberry compote, the chef’s special of the evening.
Maybe I’ve been spoiled in my extensive visits to various vino-themed venues across the country—full disclosure: my wife is a former travel editor at Wine Spectator—but I’ve come to expect certain things from a place billing itself as a wine bar. One of them is the verbose bartender, that eloquently loquacious and shrewd salesperson who can make even the cheapest corked swill sound like the nectar of the gods. “This Chilean cab is a big, bold blockbuster with notes of pencil lead and leather,” he’ll say. Or, “the Portuguese alvarinho is quite peachy and would pair perfectly with your pork sliders.”
I’ll get my fill of gruffness at the nearest dive bar, thank you very much.
My subsequent quip about how the jammy-flavored and ruby-colored Predator old vine zinfandel might indicate a new pursuit for disgraced former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who once starred in a film of the same name, barely registered. At least I thought it was a good joke.
When the guy behind the bar of one of D.C.’s premier wine-centric restaurants can’t muster much enthusiasm about an expansive selection that ranges from malbec to grüner veltliner, you begin to wonder whether anyone is passionate about wine, anymore.
Perhaps he was having a bad day. But a different bartender on a different night seemed just as distant, half-heartily endorsing a prosecco, pouring it, and then disappearing without further discussion.
Sonoma Restaurant and Wine Bar, which marks its sixth anniversary this month, was among the District’s earliest adopters of the wine-bar model. Offering cheese as an entrée and some 40 varietals on tap behind a temperature-controlled case seemed quite advanced back then. It was an opportune time: the District was rapidly becoming the oenophile capital of America, boasting more bottles quaffed per legal-aged drinker than any bona fide state in the nation, outpacing even California, where much of the domestic product comes from, according to one study.
Lately, D.C.’s collective thirst for the grape has been supplanted by an explosion of interest in craft beer and crafty cocktails. Your server today is just as likely to recommend an IPA pairing with your duck breast entrée as an old-fashioned burgundy.
Even the fiercely vine-inclined have had to adapt. Note the various micro-brews now on tap at Sonoma, such as the Flying Dog Raging Bitch. How refined!
In many ways, however, Sonoma is still putting out the same wine and cheese spread it did a half-decade ago. For instance, the creamy Pipe Dreams chèvre from Pennsylvania remains a staple, appearing both on cheese plates and as part of the house spinach salad with beets and walnuts. In fact, the restaurant recently focused an entire meal around the fluffy stuff, in honor of the visiting producer. And, while local sourcing has always been central to Sonoma’s institutional food ethos, the same cannot be said for the wine list, which clings to Californian and Italian varietals. Not a single Virginia wine is available.
If the proprietors haven’t taken the time to tour the commonwealth’s maturing vineyard scene, perhaps that’s because they’ve been busy with more pressing matters.
This past March, court records show, owners Jared Rager and Eli Hengst settled a lawsuit with noted D.C. wine broker Tannic Tongue over tens of thousands of dollars in disputed fees for wines at Sonoma and its sister wine-centric restaurant, Mendocino in Georgetown.
A month earlier, Mendocino had been shuttered over unpaid taxes. Rager and Hengst had previously sold the Georgetown business to a former employee but they continued to guarantee the lease. Their forced reacquisition of that location has apparently had ripple effects on other holdings, primarily the former Blue Ridge restaurant in Glover Park, where renovations have stalled in light of the renewed financial burdens at Mendocino.
As Hengst told the Glover Park Gazette: “Most of the financial resources that we had set aside for the renovations at Blue Ridge have been consumed by our repossession of the [Mendocino] space from the prior owner.”
Blue Ridge, meanwhile, is its own debacle. After losing celebrated chef Barton Seaver last summer, the owners abruptly overhauled the concept—switching focus from fine wines to craft beers—before finally shutting down for further tweaks behind closed doors. It has yet to reopen. Rager says permits have been a big problem.
Compared to the other two D.C. properties, Sonoma would seem a smashing success for simply surviving in some recognizable form. So long as the dominoes don’t fall in its general direction, it looks likely to stay that way. Rager credits a “perfect storm” of location, price point, and culinary talent for its endurance.
Today, Sonoma’s hopes rest with executive chef Michael Bonk, the restaurant’s third commander of the kitchen, who follows Nick Sharpe and Sharpe’s predecessor, Drew Trautmann. Bonk’s reputation got a considerable boost this week from Maria Trabocchi, wife of Michelin-starred chef Fabio Trabocchi, who raved about the couple’s recent meal at Sonoma on her Twitter feed: “From the calamari, sardines, spaghetti, lamb and blueberry cheesecake.... Probably one of the best meals I have had in DC.” It was a ringing endorsement, albeit one tinged with a wee bit of cronyism. Bonk is an acolyte of Sharpe, who in turn toiled under Trabocchi at Maestro in Tysons Corner.
Like Sharpe, Bonk shows a particular penchant for pork. He livens up his pillowy homemade gnocchi, interspersed with mushy lima beans and sweet corn, with crispy chunks of bacon, adding both crunch and punch to an otherwise unremarkable dish. You’ll find the same crunchy pig bits scattered atop Bonk’s roasted Mennonite chicken. The juicy but salty bird comes with some tasty white string beans, but the bacon stands out above all.
One winning non-pork entrée is the roasted rainbow trout, served deboned and beheaded, its silvery skin intact. The flaky white fish arrived lightly seasoned and not too salty, served with a mound of potatoes seemingly culled from an ice-cream scoop.
Likewise, the grilled sardines and calamari in squid ink were satisfying smaller dishes. On the other hand, the “Eastern Market Salad,” consisting of mixed greens, haricot verts, and thinly sliced radishes, seemed pretty skimpy in terms of vegetal diversity, given the bountiful neighborhood bazaar that serves as its namesake. The meatballs and polenta appetizer, served sizzling hot in a shallow ceramic dish, proved hearty if a bit bland.
The most underwhelming, though, is the Margherita pizza, prepared seemingly in tune with D.C.’s prevailing artisanal pie obsession—but a far cry from the crisp, artfully constructed crusts at places like 2Amy’s and Pizzeria Paradiso. I found it too charred around the edges and too chewy at the center, garnished with some sad looking strips of basil.
Even pairing it with a fine Roth pinot noir failed to enhance the experience. Maybe it would taste better with a beer.
With reporting by Nick DeSantis
Photos by Darrow Montgomery
Sonoma, 223 Pennsylvania Ave. SE, (202) 544-8088
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